Kleinfeld: Most of the time, wife initiates divorce

COMMENTJune 24, 2012 

After spending 114 years together, two giant tortoises at an Austrian zoo got a divorce.

The female wanted the divorce. She took a big bite off the shell of the male tortoise. She launched a series of violent attacks, and refused to share their cage any more. She wanted her independence.

The zoo staff tried a tortoise version of marriage counseling. They gave the giant tortoises aphrodisiacs and tried to get them to play games together.

Nothing worked. The marriage was over.

The zoo staff were forced to remove the male into a lonely apartment to protect him from the female tortoise's powerful jaws.

Human beings are like these tortoises. Our stereotype is the middle-aged man ditching his wife for a younger woman. The statistics show otherwise.

Women initiate two-thirds of divorces and far more of the separations, according to a nationally representative study by the American Association of Retired People (AARP). This study is based on surveys of more than a thousand divorced men and women, aged 40 to 79.

The most common reason the women gave for divorce was verbal, emotional and physical neglect. Many of their husbands had no idea what hit them.

"Men more often than women were caught off-guard by their divorce," reports the AARP study. More than a quarter of the men compared to just 14 percent of the women say "they never saw it coming."

I saw an awful case of this bewilderment with a male colleague. He was shocked when he was looking through his desk drawer and found that his wife not only was filing for divorce but had also been consulting lawyers about a divorce for over seven years.

"I'm the provider," he said to me. "I've always done what I was expected to do. Why did she want a divorce?"

"When I talk to the husbands, they usually have a very different explanation as to why their wives feel the way they do," writes marriage counselor Willard Harley. "They often feel that the expectations of women in general, and their wives in particular, have grown completely out of reach.

"These men, who feel that they've made a gigantic effort to be caring and sensitive to their wives and get no credit whatsoever for their sizable contribution to the family.

"They feel under enormous pressure to improve their financial support, improve the way they raise their children and improve the way they treat their wives. Many men I see are emotionally exhausted and feel that for all their effort, they get nothing but criticism."

The most typical reason that both men and women gave for postponing the divorce was how the divorce would affect their children. Children are the "glue" in a troubled marriage.

Women who filed for divorce usually felt confident that they could keep their children.

"The question of custody swamps other variables," find professors Margaret Biring and Douglas Willen in their article, "These Boots are Made for Walking: Why Most Divorce Filers are Women."

"Our study found that children are the most important asset in a marriage and the partner who expects to get custody is by far the one most likely to file for divorce."

Divorced women are far more likely than divorced men to say they are happier than when they were married, find several studies, even though the women face more financial problems, lower chances of remarriage, more anxiety and depression, more stress and less sex.

Still, more women (76 percent) than men (64 percent) are confident that divorce was the right decision. If the men remain unmarried, only 57 percent are confident that divorce was a good thing to do.

If tortoises follow human patterns, that male tortoise now alone in his cage after a century of marriage needs a partner. The female tortoise is happier after her divorce.


Judith Kleinfeld is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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